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May 10, 201811:25 AMMaking Madison

with Buckley Brinkman

Too many workers on the sidelines?

(page 1 of 2)

I’m frustrated talking about the body gap and its impending impact on our economy. Too many people fail to clearly see the magnitude of the issue, and even experts continue to misapply skills-gap solutions. We need more workers to keep the economy moving.

The recent unemployment statistics once again underline the fact that the body gap is upon us. The national unemployment rate fell below 4%, while Wisconsin’s rate remains under 3%. Both statistics show we are at full employment. Again, we need more people to keep the economy growing at even a modest rate.

Many analysts looking deeper at the statistics see potential workers on the sidelines, not engaged in the workforce. The Workforce Participation Rate measures the number of adults actively working. These numbers suggest that we can pull enough people off the sidelines to meet future labor needs. The arithmetic shows there are plenty of people available.

Well, the arithmetic may be right, but the equation is wrong.

The Wisconsin numbers are a good example. Wisconsin’s Workforce Participation Rate is at 68% — a number that looks low. In fact, it’s the fifth highest rate in the nation. The arithmetic tells us that 1.5 million adults are not in the workforce. It looks simple. Let’s put them to work. Problem solved!

Big problems are never that easy to address.

I’m fortunate that my job provides the opportunity to connect with experts in many different fields. Recently, Matt Kures, community development specialist with the UW Extension, dropped by for a discussion about manufacturing and the body gap. Matt ran through the detail behind the participation-rate numbers. The math shows that 1.5 million Wisconsin adults are not in the active workforce. That number includes all adults over the age of 16. That’s the arithmetic. Here are some key details that show how shaky the equation is:

Age Group Number Percentage Category
Over 65 776,623 49.9% “Retired”
55–64 257,593 16.6% “Almost retired”
16–24 217,892 14.0% “Students”


If you exclude these numbers, there are 302,428 available workers on the sideline. Remember that number includes everyone: stay-at-home parents, caregivers, and individuals with disabilities — absolutely everyone. So, the real number of available people is much smaller.

If you want to draw new workers from each of these age groups, they all pose unique challenges. Think about each category and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Why isn’t this particular group already part of the workforce?
  2. What actions might pull people from this group into the workforce?
  3. How likely is it that your plan will work?

See how tough it is, especially in a state with 2.9% unemployment?


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About This Blog

Buckley Brinkman is executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity and writes about the manufacturing sector in Greater Madison and throughout Wisconsin. He has a breadth of experience in helping companies drive growth, world-class competitiveness, and performance excellence, and has led efforts to save dozens of operations in the U.S. by finding new ways for them to compete. A Wisconsin native, Brinkman holds a business degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.



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